I wake up shivering on a bus, with my mate from Colombo tapping me on the shoulder. This led to the emergency, dazed, oh my god I just woke up and the bus is about to leave my station but I still need to put my shoes back on and struggle to get my massive backpack out of the overhead compartment struggle that we all know and hate. I stumble out of the bus, weighed down by my backpacks and basically fall into a trishaw.
We are met by some of the Mannar staff at the room I am staying at (I would hesitate to call it a motel room, or even a guesthouse … but it was a room). I meet and greet and try as best as possible to politely let them know that it is 6 in the morning and I am totally exhausted from the bus ride. They tell me that today we will meet later, at 8:30 in the morning. I go to my room to have a quick nap.
Stained blue walls covered in smooshed mosquitoes (balck from the mosquito with a tinge of red from the blood they had drunk, gross), a single bed with a dodgy mattress and a tangled, sorry looking mosquito net dangling above it. A flushless toiled (you have to manually flush using a bucket of water). A tap for a shower. Fill a bucket with cold water, pour it over your head. Shampoo. Soap. Another bucket. The heat of this place makes it forgivable though, almost pleasant. But it is cheap, I was willing to try it out. The MJM, not quite the height of Sri Lankan luxury.
Heading to the office for a breakfast of Pittu (some sort of rice tube sprinkled with coconut) and Dahl curry, which was absolutely amazing, and we are almost ready to go visit the field. But first, I asked for a quick explanation of the bureaucracy of the area: the hoops that need to be jumped through to let us build a rice-mill here. Two hours, an exasperated interpreter and several cups of tea later, I wrestled together an 11 step plan involving many government agencies: merely the skeleton of the time line I need. I can see that everyone is getting a little bit bored of this exercise (I am too! So many TLA’s! So many government parties! So many authorizations needed), so I call off my interrogation for the day, and schedule two hours after tomorrow’s trip to the field to fill out the dates I need.
So, now, we are heading to Nedunkandal, the village outside of Mannar (about 45 minutes away, on the mainland) where the Palmera Projects rice mill will be built. Wow, the place is totally different from my memory of going there six months ago.
Firstly, before it took us an hour and a half by van to get to the village, over roads that were all but impassable (we had to ford several dry river beds to get there). Before, the ground was a dry red dirt, like what we imagine the Australian Outback looks like on an especially drought-ridden year. Before, the army officers at the checkpoint – validating my passport, checking out my Visa, asking me what I was doing so far away from where tourists usually go – questioned me for more than half an hour.
Now, the roads have begun to be repaired; only the last ten minutes of the drive were on unpaved roads. Instead of a four wheel drive van, we went four people sardined into a trishaw with all of my photo gear. Now, the land was a luscious, flooded green, with soil that looked dark and wholesome. The red dirt was replaced by green rice fields, marshland, water lilies. Where before the only animals we saw were mangy dogs, now, there were hundreds of perfect white cranes, cows, dogs (even ones that don’t look like rabies infested zombie dogs!), and we even saw a snake slithering, or, rather, swimming through the paddy fields.
The white cranes, in their picture perfect groups, reflections shimmering in the marsh below them, were only disturbed by the red signs protruding from the ground – red sign, white skull, Danger, Landmines. One thing that was very encouraging, however, was to see that local government and international aid demining groups were there to reclaim the farmland for the villagers were scouring the areas.
We get to the church in the center of the village, but the Father is at the school giving a Christmas-time sermon to the children. But Lima was there, the secretary of the Woman’s Rural Development Service, and who featured in Palmera Project’s Dine-It-Forward promotional video after being interviewed by Dilan and Keshini only a couple of months ago. Her mother sat by her side with a couple of her friends, wives of paddy farmers, all beneficiaries of our future rice mill. We sat under the shade cast by the church’s bell-tower and chatted a little. Chatted about children, grandchildren, school, marriages, the harvest, the micro-finance loans that they had received from the local bank, and more. It is good to hear from these women again, and I will be sharing some more of their stories later on in the trip (I will be interviewing them on video).
After our catch-up, we walked to the rice fields, and stopped along the way, quite a few times, to see the houses of the villagers. The first house I went into was beautiful. Pink like only a house on the subcontinent could be. Open doors, open windows. Weirdly intricated concrete adornments on the fringe of the roof, like extremely sturdy lace. Orange juice. An amazing place. The patriarch was home, and he told us his story.
They had moved into this house in the ‘60’s, and the father had grown up here. In the war, the house was razed on three separate occasions. In the ‘90’s, the family had to flee, not just from their home, but from the country. They went to India as refugees and stayed there until early 2000, where the cease-fire had left them with hope of living in their home, in their village, in peace. Instead, when the ceasefire broke down the family was driven out of their home, which was, again, destroyed. This time, the children of the house had grown up, and only one remained in Sri Lanka, the rest having emigrated from their homeland (to London, to Toronto and some even to Australia). So the mother and father, growing frail, had to flee the front lines. They were forced to leave their homes and trek into the Vanni to survive. They went to Kilinochchi. They went to both the No Fire Zones. They witnessed the brutal end of the war. But they survived. They survived and they made it home in 2010. But their home was destroyed. With money sent to them from their children abroad, they rebuilt, repainted, and, now, the father, in his ‘70’s, previously retired, must work in the Paddy fields to make a living. But he is happy because he is home.
The next house I went to was Lima’s. Lima lived with her Akka and Ammama (older sister and maternal grandmother), and with her two nephews. Their house was a three year old “temporary shelter”, built of corrugated iron, palmera branches and a UNHCR tarpaulin. Akka (a preschool teacher) is sitting by yard with one of her three children. Her husband is in a detention camp in Colombo, awaiting trial. Ammama lost a son in the war. This family has been tried, but it is resilient. They still plow, till and sew their land. They harvest their rice twice a year. Each of them has another job on the side to supplement the family’s income.
But when they harvest their rice, they are subject to a bizarre reality. The paddy they harvest (only somewhat edible) has to be milled or sold. The family has to sell their entire paddy stock to buy rice for their family to eat. They get horrible rates for the sale, and are extorted in the purchase. If they choose to mill the rice at the closest neighboring mill, it means a 5-kilometer walk with kilos of rice on their backs. When they get to the mill, they have to pay double market rates (upwards of 6 rupees per kilo) since that mill has a monopoly.
When the Palmera Projects rice mill will be finished (in a few months, we are hoping!) Lima and her family will be able to mill their rice there. Since it is run as a social business, the rates will be much lower than the commercial mills, and the villagers will be able to keep the byproducts of production (risk husk, etc.) to use as fertilizer. They will save time, they will save money. Further, they will have another source of employment, and they will have a source of capital for any revenue generating activity they can think of – the profits from the mill used as a basis for micro finance.
But I am getting a little bit side-tracked. The day was still young and I still had a lot to do! We walked with Lima to see her paddy lands. Her Amma, with her back bent, was planting rice saplings in the muddy soil: flooded, muddy soil separated by miniature mud-walls to create an intricate system of beautifully green and grey rice and mud squared. I tried to walk to her on these mud walls, as I saw Lima and the children do, but the mud looked so inviting! And, also, I may have slipped. Suddenly, I was up to my knees in mud, balanced precariously, camera raised overhead. My shoes were almost lost to the mud, feeling like a suction cup, but, somehow, I rescued them. It is much easier walking barefoot in the paddy mud!
I tried my hand at planting these rice-saplings. It is backbreaking work. You have to wade through the deep mud, bend your back and plant these saplings by hand, each sapling of hundreds placed deliberately and carefully.
It turns out I pretty much suck at being a paddy farmer. After a little bit, my back was aching. I don’t know how the women managed. But, after trying my hand, much to the local women’s entertainment, and taking photos of my teachers, it was off to lunch. A lunch-packet similar to what I served at my Dine-It-Forward dinner in late November. One plastic bag with rice and curry, two plastic bags with different sauces: you bite the ends of these bags to pour the sauces over your food, and dig in with your hands (I am getting the hang on that!). We ate on the floor mats of our trishaw, arranged under the shade of a tree right by the paddy fields. It was serene, unreal. It could have been any afternoon in the past couple of hundred years, the only thing giving away the date was the camera slung on my back.
On the way back to the church, we saw what I had been wading through: not only was there mud, there were crabs (yes Danny, crabs, big mud-crabs with these great pincers that could totally claim a pinky toe) and, swimming water snakes! If I had seen these before, I might not have been so eager to hop into the mud myself.
After a few more interviews, it was time for the long trishaw ride home, and, then, time for a delicious dinner of Pittu with fish curry (totally under-rated, fish curry is delicious!). Then to the hotel room. A mosquito net that did nothing at all. The most broken sleep I have ever had. I woke up in the middle of the night counting more than 20 mosquito bites on my left arm alone. I have to change rooms (and the next day, I do). I am all for dingy in the name of saving money, but this place was just a little bit too horrible. Tomorrow I will move rooms to somewhere a little bit more lux (five dollars more a night for a bigger bed, a working toilet/shower and AC, count me in!).
In Mannar, instead of the usual lullaby of prayers and traffic floating through the window, I had a squeaky fan, the annoying buzz of mosquitoes fat from their dinner (of me) and the absolutely hilarious backdrop of donkeys Hee-Hawing. Mannar is filled with donkeys, they do nothing, they are wild, and they are absolutely hilarious!
Between my laughter at the donkeys (which my room-mate didn’t seem to understand), my swatting of mosquitoes and my scratching of mosquito bites, I managed to get to sleep. Tomorrow I have a 5:00 am wakeup, so just in time.
For more photos, check out my Flickr feed for the day.